Interview with Richard Stoltzman
The Interview with Richard Stoltzman, recitalist, chamber musician, and jazz performer, as well as a prolific recording artist took place on June 11th 2019 in New York and was edited by Heinrich Mätzener.
- 1 Changing to double lip embouchure
- 1.1 Kalmen Opperman
- 1.2 Harold Wright
- 1.3 Complete dedication
- 1.4 Entering another way of creating a sound
- 1.5 The reed vibrates, but you make the sound!
- 1.6 American–French school of clarinet
- 1.7 Practical experience with double lip embouchure
- 2 Sing and Play
- 3 Different languages have different vowel sounds
- 4 Breathing
- 5 It’s hard to be a good teacher
- 6 Mouthpieces and reeds
- 7 References
Changing to double lip embouchure
HM: Your teacher was Kalmen Opperman?
RS: Yes, my last teacher was Kalmen Opperman. Well he affected me very deeply, because I was already finished graduate school at Yale where my teacher was Keith Wilson and I didn’t even know who Kalmen Opperman was. So, I asked my teacher “what about reeds? What do you suggest about finding out details?“ He said: “I don’t know anything, but I have this old book from the 1950s, handbook for making single reeds and it was written by Kalmen Opperman . I didn’t know this book and he said: “Are you interested in looking at this?” I Just simply said: “sure!” I took it and you know it was so interesting, there were some nice drawings in it, then I asked: “Mr. Wilson, do you know if this man is alive?” He replied: “I have no idea. This is in the 50’s so he might still be alive”. So, there was an address in there, an address in NY. I wrote a letter to him, I wrote that I had just completed my master's degree at Yale, and I asked if I could have a sheet lesson. Ad he wrote back: “You can come down”. So, he gave me his address, 17 West 67th and I took the train down and met him for the first time and it was really beginning gentlemanly and cordial “Are you a student?” And: “You want to know about reed making?” Then he said: “Could you just play a little?” I hadn’t thought about playing, I just thought that he would talk to me about reeds. So, I played a little bit. The first thing he said was: “Well, this is not the way to play the clarinet” (laughs). I thought, I should say: “I have a master’s degree from Yale University, and he, I think he went just to high school and has no extra degrees or anything like that!” So, I was a little upset, I thought: “let’s see” and I said: “well maybe I can come down another time, if you want?” “Of course,” he said.
I was very impressed by a clarinetist whose name was Harold Wright (Buddy Wright), a clarinetist in Boston. I had heard him play, when he was performing at the Marlboro Music Festival. I mentioned him how beautiful I found his playing, his sound was gorgeous YouTube He said: “Thank you” I asked him: “Where would I learn to play this kind of way you’re playing?” I didn’t know it was double lip embouchure. I just knew the sound was a little different from what I have been thought… So, he said: ”Well, I don’t teach, I’m not teaching. But the person you should see is Kalmen Opperman!” Now it was two times Kalmen Opperman came in my life.
I took again contact with Kalmen Opperman. I also went, because I was so intrigued that he thought, I wasn’t really a clarinet player. Why would he think that? I had my degree. He never mentioned anything about money, or how much something costs, just: “All right, you can come down”.
I asked him if he knew Harold Wright. He said: “Of course I know Harold Wright! He plays double lip.” I didn’t know what double lip was. He said: “Is that something I should try with you, maybe?” He was a very tough guy, you know. He said: “You have to really study: You have to come to New York, and study with me.” I thought, maybe I should try this with him, because I graduated, and I was able from New York to go to Columbia for Doctorate Study and they hired me also to teach one of the classes in Columbia. I said: “Ok maybe I take a lesson”. But it turned out, that you don't take a single lesson: you either commit yourself to him your whole life - or he’s not interested. A friend told me later on: “Oh you went to Kalmen Opperman University? That’s the only university that you never graduate from!”
HM: But you've recognized his way of understanding art.
RS: I understood, he had this ideal: “You can always be better, always be better!” You have to listen to every sound, even before you start the sound. And if you’re not listening to every note and pay attention to that, then you’re not playing. You just play with your fingers and you’re doing your Technik.
HM: Yes, without playing music.
RS: So, I asked: “How much do I owe you for the lesson?” He said: “I don’t think you can afford my lessons”. So, in other words, he wasn’t going to charge because what he wanted me to understand is that: “It’s not for sale what you want. It’s something, that you can’t buy”. You can’t give money for that; you have to give your blood (laughs). So, I stayed with him until he died. I kept taking lessons from him till he was ninety years old. I was always at his apartment, in fact I stayed in his apartment overnight, because one point he said: “I don’t think you know how to practice!” He had a couch, He said you can sleep on the couch. “And when you get up”, for him, he was like coming from a farm “First you have to take a good breakfast, coffee, eggs, bacon, and then come back and we start to work”. He didn’t say have a lesson, he said “work”. So, he gave me one of his daily study books and something from Mimart , because he really loved the Mimart method, and I started practicing that in the room where I was. Next it was the room where he taught. He was teaching someone else, but when I would play anywhere, then he would pound on the wall.
RS: “Stop, just stop, I’ll talk to you later” he said. So, he was like someone who was observing everything, from your breath [to your fingers]. There must be a German word for entering this world of being a musician, the situation, while you are playing.
HM. Maybe “Gesamt, umfassend”? You really have to be able to control with your whole person every detail that belongs to making music, your intellect, the control about all the movements to make music?
RS: He had a kind of a dark philosophy. I sometimes said, he would talk from the dark side. He would say: “You know, everyone has his own way of destroying himself. Some people choose the clarinet”.
RS: It’s a real initiation into philosophy of music I had. I thought about music really, I had wonderful teachers, all very demanding. I got grades, you took courses - and this was nothing. And you couldn’t pay him. You couldn’t put a value on it what he had and what he was said. You could give, 100, 200, 500, 1000$, if you think that’s enough, you’re not in the right place, so what he wanted and what I tried to give him, was a complete dedication…wat’s the word.
RS: …a giving up of myself to follow his map. And everybody else for him was extra, like: “If you have a wife, ok you have a wife. She should take care of you and make sure you have a lot of time to practice! If she can do something for you, she lets you a lot of a time to practice! That’s what she can do! You have kids, you have to spend time with them, but your clarinet is above all! Your responsibility is to this piece of wood. He never said this beautiful clarinet, he said this piece of wood, with metal keys on it. You know, dark side! But then when he started playing for me that was what I wanted to sound. He started telling me about double lip, but I not could play it. He said: “You don’t have to”. Then I said: ”But I don’t sound like you do.” He made clear to me, that if I switched to double-lip I would have to give up some concerts in New York. I wouldn't be able to play above the open G.
HM. Yes, at the beginning.
RS: But, you know, I was at the right age. I thought, maybe this is my quest in life. It was a good timing. My wife I had at that time, a Japanese, was also very busy doing her own things.
HM: You changed, when you were about 23?
RS: 23, 24 years.
Entering another way of creating a sound
HM: I tried both double lip, single lip. I observed that when I change to double lip, the position of the tongue changes involuntarily, the whole inside of the mouth favors guiding the tone, playing legato, changing the color of the sounds, giving its shape. It is completely different.
RS: Exactly! All those things! And if you think you’re giving up something to play double lip, then you shouldn’t play double lip, because it’s not giving up! It’s entering another way of creating a sound! And it’s not without pain! There is some pain involved, especially when you have rather large teeth and narrow lips. Therefore, you can’t practice a lot at one time. Kalmen said: “Practice maximum five minutes, not even, two or three minutes, ant then put the clarinet down. Think about something else, look about the music, rest at least that long [until you have no more pain], come back and play again! Start every time you play with your ideal, what you really, really [want] to sound like in your life!” And [I tried and] I sound[ed] like a clarinet player or whatever. And the more you practice, the worse everything it’s going to go! So, you stop, and you come back, starting again.
The reed vibrates, but you make the sound!
HM: Did he also change to softer reeds?
RS: Yes, he did!
HM: Because it’s less painful?
RS: Well, I was playing strength 4, to 4 ½. He said: “If you want to play the clarinet your whole life with double lip, you cannot play that strength of reed”. So, he made me change to 2.5 or 3. I thought they were too weak. Then he said: “No, you’re not understanding. The reed vibrates, but it doesn’t make the sound. You make the sound! You can make the sound stronger or weaker or anything!”
This was another thing with Kalmen. He would take me to breakfast, but he didn’t let me pay! And in the beginning, all lessons started with a breakfast, he paid. Then after a while, I convinced him that I should pay!
American–French school of clarinet
HM: Who was Kalmen Opperman’s teacher (see also: John Bruce Yeh 1995: )?
RS: He took classes with the principal clarinet of the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose name is..
HM: Ralph McLane was a double lip player, he wrote an article in “The clarinet” (1950) 
RS: I don’t know exactly, but I think this McLane took lessons with someone like Bonade.
HM: Ralph McLane studied with the French clarinetist Gaston Hamelin who studied at the Paris Conservatoire in the class of Charles Turban, a student of Hyacinthe Klose. The old French School in the USA is part of this research.
RS: It is? And I’m thinking about why I wanted to start to play the clarinet. The first time I realized I wanted to play the clarinet well, was when I heard Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsody. There were so many nuances that I wished I could do. I can’t exactly remember when I heard that music, I think it was in high school. And then, finding when Kal said: “You get the book of Mimart”. You know who Mimart is? Look at the dedication: Debussy wrote: “Première Rhapsody pour clarinette en sib, à P. Mimart, en témoignage de sympathie.” 
HM: It was written for him, yes.
RS: I didn’t it, ok now I know.
HM: Daniel Bonade is considered to be the founder of the French-American school of clarinet, he was a student of Mimart at the Paris Conservatoire. I think Bonade had to learn in Paris to play double lip, but he changed to single lip during his career. Karol Anne Kycia (1999)  writes in her book about Bonade, that he taught single lip, but accepted student playing double lip. To avoid biting, he gave the students quite soft reeds. Later generations took harder reeds to get a darker sound, but often had less colors. And playing single lip, it became dangerous to bite on the mouthpiece.
RS: Biting on the mouthpiece.
Practical experience with double lip embouchure
Bringing the clarinet to the embouchure
HM: I think that there is only a smallest pressure necessary, so that the air can create the vibration of the reed. Do you bring the instrument towards the embouchure to create this – let’s say “density” between mouthpiece and embouchure - or do you make it by finding out the right angle between instrument and body? Or are you holding the mouthpiece exclusively with the lips?
SK: I tried different ways during my life of playing, and I now like bringing the instrument to my lip.
HM: And then push softly the instrument towards the embouchure?
RS: Yes! Kal’s philosophy is, that the right hand is for this kind of adjustment of the sound, you want to change the sound, or you want to work on your articulation, you use this: the right hand bringing the clarinet to the embouchure.
HM: To work on your articulation… Did he mean to start the sound by pushing a little bit the instrument against the embouchure, without using the tongue in this case? And of course, to adjust the intonation, too.
RS: Yes, intonation.
Never push any student to play double lip embouchure
HM: You can regulate a little bit.
RS: Yes, you can a little bit; you have freedom for that, I think it’s true. I think that the use of vowels which is very important for the clarinet is more natural to have a double lip, because you don’t have the same way of making vowel sounds. But it’s not for everybody and I never push it, I never push double lip embouchure at any student. But some people just want! They want it! And that’s Kal’s philosophy basically: if you want it, you choose. I’m not going to say you have to: but once you commit, then I’m your master!
Shirley Brill does single lip. Would you consider telling her doing double lip embouchure? She sounds great.
HM: You didn’t push her.
RS: No, No, but I did say. When she was in elementary school, she started clarinet, she’s used to do it. Fine. But today, wat is more important, that she is a great musician!
Most difficult Note: c’’’
HM: I understand! I frequently - not exclusively – play and work with double lip, but more and more I find the high register easy. But the most difficult note for me to play is the c’’’. There is a torque that presses the clarinet against the upper lip. The instrument balances quasi on both thumbs, the pressure against the upper lip cannot be regulated in this case by the holding work. How do you manage that?
RS: I hadn’t thought about it. I always have my fingers and hands on the clarinet all the time and I’m always holding keys.
HM: With the little fingers. RS: All the time. So, I guess you’re talking about the c’’’ on the second help line in the staff? Yes, I know what you mean. If you play it, it doesn’t feel comfortable you don’t have control, right?
HM: For all other notes, you have 2 hands to stabilize the instrument. But for this note you have only the little fingers.
Playing solo concerts sitting?
RS: Well, one of the problems for me, during my life I played so many concertos: you really never play sitting down. You are standing up with the pressure of double lip embouchure, for the length of a concerto which is 20-25 minutes. It begins to cause not damage, but a lot of pressure on your lips, you know. I tried to put something over my teeth so I don’t cut my lips. It’s a pressure that comes with the game of double lip. Many people played sitting down, this gives the opportunity to support the instrument on the knees as a compensation. I know, Harold Wright wanted to do more concertos with the Boston Symphony, but he only played sitting down, he never played standing up. He didn’t feel that this was accepted enough! Of course, cellists sit down, nobody says anything, and pianists always sit down.
HM. But clarinet player should stand.
RS: I don’t know. Anyway, that’s it.
Embouchure building with the whole face
HM. So the inside of the mouth is different from double to single lip, but also the mask from the eyes to the corners of the mouth is more involved in the embouchure building.
RS: The whole face, I think so.
HM: And of course, the chin is also involved and pointed - or is it relaxed?
RS: You know, I’m changing all the time! Sometimes, when I’m going up to high CC [the chin is more pointed].
HM: It depends from the register?
RS: Sure. And also, everybody has an individual mouth. You can’t really make a general idea about the mouth and teeth.
Sing and Play
RS: All the talking I’m doing doesn’t direct the student’s attention to what’s true! The most satisfying results I can get from the students is, if they sing what they just have to play. I mean not great singing, just sing! Then something changes! And they just have to pay attention on these changes. I say: “Don’t do what your teacher tells you! Do what your ear tells you!”
I don’t know what’s inside, and what changes inside somebody’s mouth. Why would I say: “Shirley, you have something in your mouth!” It wouldn’t make any difference, she sounds great! Should I, as a teacher, speak about these physical things? No, I don’t need to speak about that!
HM: But sometimes I think, don’t you have to make them conscious about how subtly the actions inside the mouth can be, i.e. touching the reed with a very sensible tongue, in some situations? Or maybe only for beginners?
RS: I don’t know! I have one of my students, she was part of a masterclass. The man who was doing the masterclass thought she needed to have a larger opening inside. So, he took up a pencil with an eraser at the end. ”Now you hold this, do you feel the touching? Ok!“ He took the pencil out and said: “Now pretend that pencil is there when you play”. It didn’t work for her. But the teacher tried to get somebody to understand his ideas.
Different languages have different vowel sounds
And I think it changes when you speak a different mother tongue. I think the student was Chinese and the vowel sounds in Japanese and Chinese and French are very different! An example: you listen to a French song, and you try to reproduce it. Before you start, you really imagine reproducing it the same way. It is quite possible, that the result is different from a French – or a Japanese - who would play the same thing…It’s not so absurd! So, like different languages, there are different sounds: Italian, German sounds. Maybe, I don’t know!
HM: I have a Russian student; she has been told to really open the throat while playing. She sounds dark and less articulated, compared to a French clarinetist, who articulates focusing the front of his embouchure.
My idea is to bring the tip of the tongue to the tip of the reed, always ready to articulate, and keep this position also during longer notes.’’
The tongue is our bow
RS: I’m not using the tongue only for articulation, but just for phrasing. The tongue is so useful for phrasing. It allows you to end a phrase, start another and color it! It’s great for that! The tongue is our bow. We can get the same effects with the tongue as a great violinist with his bow. He works by giving a certain pressure on his bow, or by turning it more or less inside.
HM: Do you change the velocity of air by changing the position of the tongue to get these effects?
RS. Yes, sure!
HM. You don’t touch the reed, but you make a different focus on the air stream by different forms and positions of the tongue. And even changing it on a long-sustained note, you change the color by changing the position of the tongue?
Speak and play
RS: This is one of the reasons, I did a clarinet book with only opera arias. And I tried to put a few words for the clarinet players to think about, what the singer is singing here. What are the actual words? What are the nouns? Sometimes some of the arias use the syllables on the same notes “pa pa pa pa pa pa”, like vocalizes. It’s so great! If clarinet players could only sometimes think about saying the sounds, not only play the sounds. Just listen and imitate these singers, how they use the language to make actually emotion. Even if you don’t understand French, or German, you get the power or the sweetness or the tenderness of something through using your mouth and speaking the language. I think the more clarinet players do that, the better they are!
HM: Also, the consonance, the sounding consonance, to imitate on a wind instrument. So, the ending of a sound, which can be an “N” or a “M”, also the air support is really important.
RS: That’s crucial!
HM: To be able to go on really three pianos, pianissimos, to end a note with a sounding consonant.
RS: Like the beginning of Messiaen “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” third movement, “Abîme des oiseaux” pour clarinette solo. Messiaen starts with four pianos. That sound is not so hard to do, but sometimes, people say “oh that’s amazing”. The sound starts “dal niente”. You don’t hear the beginning, because I’m the only one who can hear: it’s prepared inside.
HM: I found it difficult to describe how to create this very piano. It’s not made by embouchure pressure, not at all, but by a sort of very compact wind. Then I just have to find the right focus in the embouchure, and raising the wind pressure, so I’m creating a really piano sound.
Extend your own standards of aesthetics
RS: But if you want to play soft, your concentration in blowing is like blowing a loud sound. You bring that pianissimo down to the softest level and you’ll be able to take any tone. You know, I’m thinking of that Messiaen course. When I played in Tashi Quartet he coached this group. And when I played the solo movement I was very nervous, I wanted to do the best I can. And the theme is in the throat register the first time, next time is in the chalumeau. It says “piano”. He came up to me and said “no, no, that’s not it” – he didn’t say that, he only spoke French, “NON! “again (sings aa-a-a-aa-a-aa-a-aaa)
HM: What did he want? RS: I don’t know what he wanted. but finally, he started kind of yelling at me “NOIR! NOIR!“ Black. This is like, do you know Messiaen?
HM: I never met him personally.
RS: He said “NOIR!”, on an intimidating way. Not a jolly person. “NOIR!” What should I do? I use the word dark when I’m teaching but I did not realize what he meant. I played afterwards, not so light, I guess. When he was saying NOIR, finally the only thing that pleased him, it’s when played that kind of squeezed, so that it had a grainy kind of sound, not this beautiful pianissimo we learned, and we strive to play. It was more like moaning (RS imitates a moaning, singing). If I had a student who would play like that, I would say no, no, no. This sound, you know, I’d rather say it’s dirty! But that’s what he wanted! Or, at least he stopped yelling at me.
HM: It’s interesting. I never would have thought in this way!
RS: No! NOIR!! NOIR!!
HM: (Laughing) You were really frightened.
RS: Scary! And also, I was playing in the Messiaen, in his pieces all these rhythms in the 3th movement, not a meter, but individual notes with different length (see Messiaen, Olivier, and John Satterfield. 2007, rhythms with added values, p.16 ). And there is one place, I thought I was playing it fine. And he said: 1!2!1!2!1.2.3!1.2.3! 1!2! The energy was so tight and strong! Because I was thinking 1,2,1,2,3 When he said (RS. is imitating Messiaen with a very military, dry, tight voice) 1!2!!1.2.3!1.2.3! It better may be played differently, I thought. I didn’t know what I was doing but I was trying to follow, not what he was singing but talking! And it is may be the secret of learning things. You take it from the expression of the voice you know, rather than from some technique. His music is very full of that kind of expression of power.
HM. Yes. It’s these biblical pictures of the angel coming down. It’s really apocalyptic.
RS: Yes, under the world, I don’t know, very dramatic piano parts.
Extend your way of thinking
HM: I think it is very important to meet people like Messiaen, or Kalmen Opperman.
RS: I had a lucky part of making music that way. I could talk to the composers about how to play their music. Takemitsu was that way too! The Concerto “Fantasma/Cantos”, that he wrote, I did play it in Zurich, but the first time I performed the concerto with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos was with the Vienna Symphony in the Konzerthaus, Wien October 17, 1991. On that evening I also played Mozart K. 622, commemorating exactly 300 years after the premiere performance on that same stage October 17, 1791!
HM: You played with the Zurich Opera Orchestra, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos was conducting.
RS: For all the themes that he composed, I stated to find out, he imagined the sound of the bamboo flute, the Japanese sakuhachi That sound, many times, is accompanied by air sounds. For him, this is music, this is not like bad Technik, and also curving the sound (imitating sakuhachi).
HM: A vibrato with a really big amplitude!
RS: I was so lucky talking to the composers. Takemitsu told me this: Sakuhachi! And he actually brought me to Japan and I had a lesson with a sakuhachi player. He just wanted me to experience what that man would say to me and how to make this sound because he thought it would help me. Such a great composer and I learned so much! The drama of this music, the concerto is called Fantasma/Cantos! The concept is a garden that you walk in, a Japanese garden, around the whole garden. So, he phrased the concerto like that, so certain intervals, I think (sings). Everybody takes it up and is sure that you are walking around the garden scene and see these interval flowers growing everywhere. And then right in the middle, it’s supposed to be the idea of reaching half way around the garden and when you look at the garden, you see, it’s the same garden, but it’s just..! How you bring that in the music? This is so amazing and he gave the clarinet.. the first time you go around, it says.. I remember that because the description he had written, was: calm and ecstatic! “calm and ecstatic” How to play that? Laughs (like noir!) What does that mean? But this is beautiful and the scales that the clarinet plays is 4 1/2 steps scale, and the orchestra is almost soundless very high harmonics (sings) Anyway, he asked me: “Is this a good marking?” I said: ”it’s perfect, a perfect marking”! I don’t understand that, but it makes me think in a way I would never think. I mean ecstatic, I get and I also get “calm“ but he told me, when he brought it to the Schott publishers, they told him, that there was an error, that he had written two incorrect words: it cannot be calm and ecstatic, it cannot be both! And they took it out!
RS: when they had the published score, they just put “calm”
HM. What did they write instead of ecstatic?
RS: Nothing. They said to Takemitsu: you have to write either calm or ecstatic but you can’t put the two words together! You don’t understand the English language.” He gave up. But I had the manuscript, I used the manuscript, the one before they published, and he there were marked both words. When we rehearsed, I told to the Maestro, that there should be marked “clam and ecstatic”. The concept of this marking changes the whole passage, it is just super. calm and ecstatic! He can’t write what you do when you’re calm and ecstatic!
HM: Did Takemitsu teach you also about breathing?
RS: He didn’t, no. I wouldn’t say he taught me about it. He loved the result of the human breath in music, and what it meant. To him it was almost religious. But he didn’t say anything to me.
We change the way of playing and breathing during life
HM: And did Kalmen Opperman teach about breathing, I mean about the physiological aspects, how to use your diaphragm, or your back, or your chest? Because I think if you change the embouchure, you also breathe differently! With single lip embouchure you tend to press more with your air against mouthpiece, because there is more pressure in the embouchure?
RS: I think each of us must learn ultimately from his own experience. [The inner imagination during breathing and sound production resembles a cross, a horizontal one connects the two shoulders, a vertical one follows your spine, from the back of your head to the sacrum.] But what has that is worth it, to impose to a student the kind of playing that seems like good to you? Everybody grows and changes, and everybody’s final sound, if we just talk about sound, the final sound can only be his own.
HM: Yes, it is very personal.
Demands on a clarinetist as orchestral musician
RS: This is one thing; it was problem for me I tried auditioning for some orchestras. There was a conductor, a sort of regional orchestra. I tried auditioning for that, I played, the man was nice to me, then he said “you know, you must learn how to fit in, your sound doesn’t fit in!” And I never thought about it. I understand. A couple of years later, I auditioned for Seiji Ozawa, because I lived in San Francisco. And I played for him. And he said: you can’t be in an orchestra. I was very devastated when he said that! You can’t play in an orchestra? What are you supposed to be?
HM: But today the fashion is, everybody sounds quite similar, you don’t hear really personal sounds.
RS: He didn’t say ”you don’t fit in” but he said, “You can’t be in an orchestra” But he wasn’t meaning a bad thing. What he meant is “It’s not going to work for you! If I hired you, I have certain ideas and you have your ideas, so it is not going to work! He knew Takemitsu, that’s why I got an audition.
HM: He thought especially the musicality, the phrasing, no? the color of sound, because you’re plenty of your ideas when you play. Sometimes it is difficult to work together.
It’s hard to be a good teacher
RS: And it is very hard to be a teacher, you know! I never thought really much at all, after 65 or 70. I’m trying to write my remembering of my teachers: all my teachers. I carry around pieces of papers.
HM: That would be great! RS: I would love to do it! When I was going to a birthday party of Kal Opperman, at his favorite Delicatessen, he knew what he wants, so we went there, I was in a taxi. The driver had a turban, like Indians. He said” where are you going” “down, on the West Side, it’s a Delicatessen called Skyline” “Oh, I know that!” He said” What are doing there?” “I’m going to have a birthday party for my teacher” I replied. And he said “Oh! You have a teacher?” “Yes, I have a teacher”. He said ”you know, in my country, the other name for teacher, is God!” He just said that! I never heard anybody say that. And I was thinking: It was kind of funny because we had a long table with all the students and Kal was at one end, kind of like Jesus! I’m going into the Birthday party of God! I never told him that, but there is something about all our teachers about an aspect of God in their belief, in their impression on you, in their effect on you. It is not just knowledge. Something that they want you to possess. They feel you understand if they can just express something, may be a secret, may be not a secret, a way of going, a path, kind of your god!
Authority through substantial knowledge
HM: I think the difference is, that religion is a hierarchic system.
RS: I would say, it was different with Kal. It was a different sort of authority, through knowing things about music, about clarinet, clarinet playing, not just authority without substantial knowledge. It is hard to explain. I remember, I took my mother, when she was still alive, to lunch here in New York, I wanted her to meet Kalmen Opperman. I found this out from another person who was at the table, afterwards, I was outside for a moment my mother took this opportunity to say: “Oh! Mr. Opperman, my son is so happy for your teaching, he really, really thinks you are such a great teacher”. I found that out later. Kal said to her: “Not enough”. She was just saying how much I appreciate him. She was trying to be nice and have a nice table talk. “Not enough” was his answer, and my mum was chocked! She just meant to be nice and comes to a man who was God. And he says: “He doesn’t believe enough! He is not true believer yet”. He still has..
HM: He wanted to say that you should work more? He wasn’t joking?
RS: He wasn’t joking, but it comes back to this feeling that nothing should stand in your way to the clarinet: not your wife, not your mother, not your ideas about society, nothing! Just that’s it! The clarinet will reward you, by being there when you open the case and put it together! That’s your reward! Which is not much, you know, but what he says is: you’ve chosen a path which doesn’t give you money or even fame, or anything! It gives you the clarinet. That’s it. You open the case: the clarinet is here! It’s a kind of monastic and severe.
Kalmen Opperman taught the fundamentals
HM: It is very unique! How did he teach interpretation of music? Was it analytic?
RS: No, he used to tell people: I’m not here to tell you how to play music, I’m here to tell you how to play the clarinet! I teach the clarinet. If you play well the clarinet, you play music. He certainly had his ideas about music! He never came to my concerts!
HM. Didn’t he
RS: He never came. Not even when I played in the Carnegie Hall. Never. But I didn’t take that as an insult or anything. He knew that some people like me, and that I was getting some success. He did not believe success in a physical manner was what matters.
HM: How could he? He wrote books about reeds, études. What did he live from if he didn’t take any money for teaching?
RS: Oh! He played in Broadway, his whole life, 40 years. He loved the voices. He had to be in the theater at 7.30 and the rest of the day he was free. At 6pm he had a taxi cab who picked him up regularly, he had time up to a minute. And I said “Kal you don’t even have time to warm up!” He just opens the box, takes the clarinet, Boom, down beat, that’s it!
HM: They play the same piece for a long time!
RS: Yes, a month, sometimes more! And he could always get a great job! The conductors could always choose, so they said: “Get Opperman for reeds!”
HM: It must be demanding to play in a Broadway theater. RS: He said it was mostly depressing because most of the musicians did not have the standard that he had, and they didn’t care! They just played. And he did that for his whole life!
HM: He was doubling saxophone, bass clarinet, E-flat, all single reeds?
RS: And he made the mouthpieces for all of them.
HM: They worked well?
RS: He worked. People came constantly to his apartment to get a mouthpiece. He was changing the facing. Quite a few Jazz guys came to him. I remember Benny Goodman came to his apartment to try his mouthpieces.
RS: He had great knowledge, anyway Benny is like every other clarinet player. He wants to talk about reeds, and clarinets and mouthpiece. He liked it. He lived across housed. Benny lived in an apartment right next to the United Nations. I arranged a meeting for Benny Goodman with Kalmen. Kalmen said: ”I’m busy, but allright”.
HM. Was he a little suspicious? RS: “Busy”. So, we took Benny Goodman’s limo. His driver drove us over there. Kal was - shall we say - not particularly forthcoming towards Benny Goodman. He had a mouthpiece, he tried it. Benny was kind of reserved. “Oh, it’s not bad! How much do you want for it, 25?” Kal was so insulted! “Oh no, it’s yours,” he said. Benny just stuck it in his pocket, no covering, went out to his limo driver, and he was off. And I was so ashamed, I felt so bad, you know, I thought it was something nice, honoring Kal. But it was not. It was just what he thought it was going to be: a person who had everything and could get anything. And he didn’t appreciate Kal, except: “Oh, this is a nice mouthpiece, how much do you want for it, 25?”
HM: I know, that today clarinetists can be willing to pay more than thousand dollars for a mouthpiece. So, it was much, much to cheap?
RS: Oh, yes! You would have paid at least 500 $ for his pieces.
A tradition of being generous
HM. When was that?
RS: 1980. So, I didn’t have anything to say to Kal, I was so sorry. On the other hand, I would try to pay him for his lessons “I’m too expensive, you can’t afford me” was his answer. So finally, I just started to give it to his wife. And I did that, because I remembered a story he told me, when he was studying with Simeon Bellison here in New York City. He was a boy, and Bellison agreed to teach him in his apartment every week. The deal was, that it is going to cost five dollars, which was a huge amount for Kal. He just came from a farm! Bellison knew this. Kal told me, that Bellison’s wife would carefully keep a strict schedule of the time each student was allowed in to the studio and then knock on the door when time was up. She also kept careful accounting of the payments by students. Kal said that he had told Mr. Bellison that he couldn’t afford to pay the $5 fee, but that Bellison really was happy to teach him for free. However before each lesson was over, Bellison would hand Kal a five dollar bill and tell him to hand the money back to him when Mrs. Bellison knocked and opened the door. This way his wife would be sure to witness that Kal was paying properly for lessons!
HM. Very nice story!
RS: Isn’t’ that a sweet story?
HM. So he learnt to be a very generous person!
RS: This is what was so terrible about Benny: I like Benny and he did great things for the clarinet, and he was nice to me, but he wasn’t nice to my teacher!
Mouthpieces and reeds
HM: I wonder if you changed a lot your mouthpieces.
RS: Yes! I’ve made about 80 CD’s, so many recordings. Sony got out a box with 40 CD’s in almost 40 years (see Richard Stoltzman [http://www.richardstoltzman.com/blog/2016/12/12/40-cd-box-set blog blog). Sounds like me… and I know that I had at least 5 different mouthpieces at that time. It was kind for me to know that even if I should strive for the best equipment and everything, that may be the sound was going to be my sound, for the better or the worse, that’s the way it was recorded! Forty years and always different reeds. “Oh, this is a god reed. I’ll put this away and play for my special concert”. But then you forget about it.
HM: But you still play cane reeds. RS: I’m not going to play plastic reeds, it’s too late for me!
HM. But you work on reeds?
RS: A little bit, finally Kal gave me some lessons, not at first, he could not stand it because I was not thinking about the right things, I was thinking about reeds making. But he finally gave me a couple of his reeds knives! I use them, very judiciously, very!
HM: Doing only small retouches?
RS: Tiny, tiny. He showed me and said: “Here is how much you take off.” I didn’t see anything. “That’s right. If you see something, it’s too much”.
If the reed is not bad, but you are just not quite happy, you can sometimes bring it around.
- Opperman, Kalmen. 2002. Handbook for making and adjusting single reeds: for all clarinets and saxophones. [Place of publication not identified]: M Baron Co, Inc.
- Mimart, Prosper Charles Joseph. 1911. Méthode nouvelle de clarinette; théorique et pratique. Contenant des photographies explicatives de nombreux exercices et des leçons mélodiques. Paris: Enoch.
- Yeh, John Bruce, 1995. An Interview with Kalmen Opperman. The Clarinet, Vol. 22, No. 3May/June 1995. Atlanta, Georgia
- Kycia, Carol Anne. 1999. Daniel Bonade: a founder of the American style of clarinet playing. Captiva, FL: Captiva Publishing
- Messiaen, Olivier, and John Satterfield. 2007. The technique of my musical language: text with musical examples. Paris: Alphonse Leduc)